For nearly 90 years, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival has been one of the state's landmark artistic institutions, drawing both international theater talent and audiences to Ashland.
But last July, OSF artistic director Nataki Garrett called Shariffa Ali, hoping the acclaimed New York stage director and the festival's 2020 artist-in-residence could help "save" it. At the time, Ali had sheltered in Ashland for months after COVID-19 shut down her production of The Copper Children almost as quickly as it began.
"I remember feeling on opening night [Feb. 29] a little weirded out that everyone had been hugging me," Ali says. "We had no idea what was in store."
Like so many live festivals, OSF pivoted online in 2020, launching myriad digital programming under the banner of O! In response to Garrett's request, Ali sought artistic inspiration from her immediate surroundings: nature, pandemic loneliness and the bittersweet reality of being a Black visitor in a state she was coming to love while simultaneously confronting its white supremacist history and contemporary racial disparities. Ali set about making Ash Land with those themes in mind.
"We came to the realization that, wait a minute, what we're doing is actually quite radical," she explains. "We are defying the design of how [Oregon] was set up just by going on a walk, just by choosing to be joyful, just by eating from the local market."
The result is a 20-minute short film available via OSF's website and selected for this month's Los Angeles-based Pan African Film Festival. Ash Land finds a woman called only "She" (Kamilah Long) languishing alone in a trailer. Meanwhile, an ambiguous figure from her past, "Her" (Cyndii Johnson), pursues the despondent older woman across the Southern Oregon wilderness. Ali's storytelling keeps the women's relationship initially vague, but there's clearly a mountain of history between them, as She and Her hike to swimming holes, discuss Northwest honey, and navigate difficult questions of identity. In Ali's first full-scale cinematic outing as a director, she found a particularly crafty way to suggest the women's connection.
"I tried as much as possible to get [Johnson and Long] to breathe in synchronicity with each other," Ali says. "The actors have been directed to actually complete each other's breath cycles."
If She and Her feel more symbolic than literal at times, perhaps it's because they were created in composite fashion. Ali says the two characters are amalgams of four Black women artists—Ali, Long, Johnson and playwright Banna Desta, Ash Land's screenwriter—working and bonding in a pod after the canceled festival.
"We have been rewired by the time we spent in Oregon," Ali says. "Our atoms had been rejiggered anew, but we look the same."
Though she's since moved back to New York, the Northwest immediately calls Ali again. As part of OSF's 2021 hybrid lineup of live and digital programming, Ali will direct another Oregon short this spring: You Go Girl! by writer Zoey Martinson. Once again, her work will focus on a Black woman—this time a standup comedian—coming to terms with her solitude in the forests of Southern Oregon.
Ali, who grew up in South Africa and currently teaches at Princeton University, isn't the lone artist in her creative circle appreciating the state from afar. It turns out The Roots emcee Tariq Trotter, aka Black Thought, is also an Oregon admirer, which Ali discovered while collaborating on Trotter's forthcoming Broadway musical, Black No More. That connection led Trotter to become Ash Land's executive producer, but more significantly contribute an exclusive song by The Roots, which plays in its entirety to close the film. Ali hopes "Push for Me" could serve as an anthem to help Oregon own and dismantle its history, as one of hip-hop's virtuoso emcees references both sundown towns and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in its lyrics.
"Tariq loves Oregon," Ali says. "He has declared that he will be retiring in Oregon. We need to go house-hunting for him, find a nice place for him with greenery and a creek."
SEE IT: Ash Land streams at osfashland.org/productions/2020-digital/ash-land.aspx. Free.